Gold threads of ornat

Mystery of Slutsk girdle contemporary
To appreciate the entire beauty of masterpieces of ancient cutting and needlework, one has to visit a picture gallery or see a provincial cathedral.
And look for ornats there. They were a compulsory element of a clergyman’s clothes like cassocks, their colour and cut fit certain occasions. It is the only kind of ancient clothes, which managed to remain safe and secure up till the present day.

“These ornats were made of Italian, French, English fabric, maybe not German”, says Yelena Karpenko, senior scientific officer of the Ancient Belarusian Arts Department of the National Art Museum. “In the 17th–18th centuries Catholic cathedrals were rich. A century later many a clergyman’s garment were made using old clothes, even Slutsk girdles. Such examples are aplenty”.

When in the 1980s a French exhibition was arranged in Minsk, the head keeper of Lyons museum collection was just gasping when he saw our stock and said “Why did I have to bring anything to you? You have perfect Lyons!” He meant the amazing French fabric our ornats are made of. The Radzivils bought fabric in Lyons, had costumes made for them, and then donated some remains to the temples.

“Ornats were kept in chests or massive wardrobes”, says Yelena Vladilenovna. “Nesvizh cathedral alone has a dozen of such ornats. Some Roman Catholic priests had a hundred and more. The clothes were inherited from a previous priest. That was the way to collect such huge wardrobes”.
In the 1960s the State Art Museum of Belarus started nation-wide comprehensive examination of all closed down temples where thousands of pieces of art were left unattended.

“I remember we came to Izabelin of Volkovysk District,” recollects Nadezhda Vysotskaya, head of the Ancient Belarusian Arts Department of the National Art Museum. “A small village. A cathedral. Blooming apple trees. Unspeakable beauty. And the caved-in roof of the temple with a huge number of ornats under it”.

It takes years to restore the rescued pieces of art. There are only three specialists in the field in Belarus. Tatiana Gorovets, head of the Restoration Department of the National Art Museum, has been specialising in ornats since 1987. One of them has been on her ‘surgical table’ for ten years already to be showcased this summer.

Embroidered with threads of gold and precious gems as well as sophisticated laces, it is a unique piece of the 17th century art. All this beauty is speckled with black dots, the fabric was torn in some parts.

“It was crumpled and dirty. It seems it had been kept in a damp chest, without fresh air”, assumes Tatiana Vasilyevna.

An ornat consists of three layers: the upper part is an elegant one, the medium one is fabric soaked in flour glue to make it as hard as pasteboard. The lower part is flax lining.

Many details seem impossible to restore. For example, one of the ornats lost its gold embroidery. However, it was lucky it will get its gems back.

“If you take a closer look, you will see pin holes, namely needle traces”, the restorer held a piece of cloth close to the light. “We managed to use them to restore the embroidery pattern. Actually if there is no pattern left, we are not allowed to restore the pattern to our liking”.

A lot of work has to be done — removing the black dots, sewing on new pieces of cloth. The restorer goes shopping alone, as only a restorer can see what an ornat needs after the restorer has spent years with it.

Many fragments are restored millimetre after millimetre, as they are hard to redo, be it a bird sitting on some vase or the face of a saint. What for? Tatiana Gorovets believes, in modern times we lose taste and grasp of style. The old things help us return it. Six restored ornats will appear in a new exposition of the National Art Museum in half a year.

by Viktar Korbut
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